BBC Two’s Mrs America begins with one of the most brilliant character introductions in recent years. Not since J-Lo hooked her ankle around a pole at the beginning of Hustlers has a female character stepped centre-stage with more in-your-face aplomb than Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, America’s late conservative darling and a prominent activist against the women’s movement in the 1970s.
In the show’s first scene, Schlafly is taking part in a charity fundraiser, and appears onstage dressed in heels and a bikini, the United States flag emblazoned across her chest. She’s introduced to the crowd as “the wife of one of our biggest donors, Mrs. J. Fred Sclafly” – which really says it all.
A Radcliffe graduate with six children and a failed run for Congress under her belt, her intellectual needs and ambitions have long been secondary to those of her wealthy, older husband. There’s one particularly uncomfortable scene in episode one, after Schlafly returns exhausted and sweaty from a trip to DC, which borders on marital rape.
In DC, Schlafly hopes to influence a congressman’s stance on the country’s nuclear policy – but instead she’s asked to take notes during the meeting. She only gains the man’s attention when she begins speaking out against the women’s movement and the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment), arguing that “equal rights” will undermine housewives and eventually see women drafted to fight in the military.
She’s initially an underdog in DC, both in the male corridors of power and up against the well-established women’s movement.
Schlafly is, to this day, often portrayed as a reviled spectre of anti-feminism and a poster-girl for white conservative America. In 2016, Trump spoke at her funeral. Depending on who you speak to, she was either a saint or a monster; a pearl-clutching Dolores Umbridge-type dressed in pastel hues.
But what Mrs America does so brilliantly is to colour in this black-and-white portrayal, just as it does with the women’s movement itself.
The series points to how quickly the women’s movement initially dismissed Schlafly and her supporters – middle-America housewives – and also how the movement fails to properly address the issues that arise for BAME and LGBTQ feminists.
In DC and New York we meet the movement’s leaders, including Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne). Each episode focuses on a figure linked to both sides of the ERA fight, although Schlafly figures prominently in all of them.
Episode two (‘Gloria’) focuses on Steinem, who despite her very different politics, is similar to Schlafly in some ways, specifically regarding how she is often underestimated.
Steinem first made her name posing as a playboy bunny and writing an exposé on her experience – her celebrity and glamorous public image influences both how men and, as we discover, fellow feminists see her.
In episode two she attends a launch party for her feminist magazine ‘Ms’, but beneath the smile she’s concealing pain caused by recent unkind comments made by leading second-wave feminist Betty Friedan. Does the feminist movement respect Steinem’s intellect, or see her merely as a pretty face for posters?
There’s hypocrisy on both sides – not least Schlafly’s public image as a housewife, propped up by a household of black maids and a doting, childless sister-in-law. But that’s precisely what makes this series so multi-dimensional. Mrs America spins and recentres the fight for equal rights, and tells it from the perspective of an oddly sympathetic, bikini-clad anti-heroine.
Mrs America is set to air in the UK on BBC Two from Wednesday July 8th at 9pm with a double-bill. Check out what else is on with our TV Guide.